Whitewashing of Asian Characters in Hollywood Anime/Manga Adaptations

2014 and 2015 were the years of new retelling of iconic Disney stories (Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsmen, Cinderella, Pan). Now, it seems like the next new trend in Hollywood, is the retelling of iconic anime/manga stories on the big screens. But, there is just one problem with this new trend that is causing an uneasy stir among fans of these anime and manga. It is the blatant whitewashing of these characters. Let me take a pause, and explain what ‘whitewashing’ is.

Whitewashing can appear in non fictional works, but in this case, this happens when a fictional character from a novel is originally drawn or described as a person of color, yet in the live action adaptation, the character becomes intentionally white. Sometimes the white actor pretends to be of a different race, as when Rooney Mar pretended to be a Native American princess in Pan. Other times the character’s original racial identity is entirely abandoned and the character simply becomes White, as appears to be the case with The Last Airbender and Dragon Ball Z:Evolution. Now, there is a new syndrome of whitewashing of of anime/manga characters, that are not only dear to my heart, but also the heart’s of many fans.

 Nat Wolff cast in Death Note

Nat Wolff cast as Light Yagami

Warner Brothers announced that they’ve been working on a live action adaptation of the popular Japanese manga/anime series, Death Note. Warner Brothers also announced that, the main protagonist of this film, Light Yagami, will be portrayed by The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns actor, Nat Wolff. When this was announced, many manga and anime fans of this series, scratched their heads in confusion. Why is Light Yagami, a notably Japanese character, being played by a White actor?

In Death Note, a high school student named Light Yagami discovers a mysterious notebook that allows him to kill anyone simply by writing the victim’s name. When Light meets the notebook’s previous owner, a demon called Ryuk bent on ridding the world of anyone it deems evil or useless, he ends up tracked by Interpol and a world-famous detective investigating the unexplained deaths of several criminals.

Death Note will presumably be an American-ized take on the original property, as most of the producers involved are known for transporting Japanese pop culture over to Hollywood. Yes, this movie will be an American adaptation. But, why does and American adaptation have to equal a white lead? Can’t the main lead be a Japanese protagonist and still be the lead?

Scarlett Johansson cast in Ghost in the Shell

ghost in a shell 2
Scarlett Johannson as Major Motoko Kusanagi.

In April of 2015, Hollywood released that they were in the works of adapting the 90s film based in Japan, Ghost in the Shell, into a live action film. With that release, they also announced that Scarlett Johansson, had been offered the role for the main lead. My first reaction to this was, why didn’t they cast an Asian actress for this role, more importantly, a Japanese actress? I’m not saying that Scarlett can not deliver in her portrayal, it’s not her fault that she got cast, but, why not cast an accurate actress to portray an actual Japanese character? Many of us who enjoy cinema are conditioned to think of whiteness as the default. As if there weren’t already enough roles written for White actors, Hollywood decides that no one could’ve been a better fit for this Japanese speaking character living in Japan than, you guessed it, a White actress. A bit of a slap in the face to all the Japanese actresses that suddenly became unworthy of the big screen, don’t you think?

The he thing that is perpetuating this continual use of white actors taking the spots of Asian Americans, Hollywood is taking the opportunities for Asian Americans to be represented in Hollywood. How does an actor gain reputation in Hollywood without a reputable resume without opportunity to play iconic roles or any roles, for that matter.

Garrett Hedland as Tetsuo

In 2011, The Warner Bros. planned a live-action adaptation of Akira. According to articles in The Hollywood Reporter and several sci-fi blogs and websites, Garret Hedlund had been tapped to play the lead role of Shotaro Kaneda, with Kristen Stewart, Helena Bonham Carter and Ken Watanabe in talks to play other main roles.

The original Japanese anime version of Akira, was made in 1988, and considered the quintessential of Japanese animated film. The story circles around a catastrophic explosion that destroys the city of Tokyo – an explosion which is first implied to be nuclear in origin, a reminder of fears about atomic destruction in Japan since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fans of the manga and original movie questioned whether the plot so deeply intertwined with Japanese history could survive a setting change to Manhattan and changing all the main characters from Japanese, to White. This movie was shot down because of the large fan outcry of it’s misrepresentation.

*Did you know that the 2012 film, Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank, was influenced by Akira?

Why The Last Airbender Failed

The main cast of The Last Airbender
The main cast of The Last Airbender

Airbender and DragonBall Z: Evolution were an egregious examples of bad casting, because the race of the actors were particular to the culture and feel of a story taking place in mythical Asia. They basically took White actors to play all the leads in characters integral to the Asian story line. Hollywood has tried to make anime adaptations in the past using White actors to replace Asian characters and it just never ends well.

The Last Airbender, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, was adapted from the Nickelodeon animated show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was heavily influenced by East Asian cultures, particularly China, borrowing such things as architectural design and language structure. Other influences come from South Asian and Indigenous cultures. There is an article from the DailyDot, talking about the movie controversy.

Hollywood Needs More Representation

Asian-American actors have always had a difficult time getting parts in Hollywood. When some casting directors, producers, and directors, look at an Asian-American actors, and only cast them in movies that have Asian settings, they completely exclude the fact that, yes, Asians can be Americans too. That yes, they can be in romantic comedies, scary thrillers/horror, action blockbusters, etc. It’s a subtle racism that doesn’t have to do with hate, but it’s a type of casting racism nonetheless. Bad casting is in no way, meaning that the actors that are being considered/offered these roles, are not capable of giving a good performance. The actors above, are all great actors, and have no control of what decisions the director chooses.

It is, however, the responsibility of the people behind the scenes, to understand the importance of having accurate representations of races in which they cast actors in. Hollywood is an industry that reaches out to countries all over the world. But, having White people taking the roles meant for people of Asian descent, is a refusal to understand that people like them matter too. More diversity will allow people to acknowledge that Asians and other unrepresented minorities, are capable of making Hollywood films good, too.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I feel that the whitewashing of anime and manga makes absolutely no sense. If Hollywood is trying to appeal to a larger audience then making all of the characters white is not the way to do it. I feel that Hollywood expects audiences to be more shallow than they really are.

  2. I am not against casting actors as characters of a different racial or other background than their “real” selves, however I find silly and sad the extent to which characters, notably Asian characters, have been whitewashed. Celebrate original stories and characters and respect Asian actors by embracing more of them especially when the role already calls for one.

  3. Motoko Kusanagi is a asian character. Well, I know more than 1000 great asian actress that will be a perfect Major Kusanagi, without whitewashing!

  4. Rachel

    It’s surprising, really, how whitewashing in Hollywood has become such a prevalent part of our society that it can be overlooked at times. I, a big fan of Avatar: the last Airbender, didn’t take a second look at the actor’s race in the movie simply because I am always surrounded by the assertion that white is the default race for anything. Although small attempts are being made at fixing this problem, the fact that the appearance of a different racial group in Hollywood is so exciting, only emphasizes how unaccustomed we are to equal representation.

  5. Aaron Hatch

    Interesting article. While Scarlet Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell and Nat Wolff being in Death Note don’t bother me, I totally understand why people would find it in bad taste. It probably stems from the fact that, as you said, Asian-Americans don’t get as many leading roles in Hollywood. Yet, at the same time, Japan does to same thing to some of Americans famous properties. Japan had Japanese Spider-man, and yet most americans did not find it offensive that a popular symbol of New York City was played by someone who is Japanese. True, whitewashing and vice versa are like comparing apples and oranges, but I am just saying that it should work both ways.

  6. I enjoyed this article, and I think it’s a good contribution to the discussion of this topic. The trend of whitewashing in U.S media is troublesome and I think it’s good to get the conversation started. It makes sense that American viewers might respond more to an Americanized version of stories, but I think that there’s also something to be gained from exploring other cultures’ stories instead of narrowly focusing on our own. I think that combined with the complete lack of non-stereotypical roles out there for Asian-American actors should have people paying more attention to this subject.

  7. Wake up Hollywood, telling a story with the right people in place SELLS TICKETS.

  8. njugeng

    Ghost in the Shell is a Landmark of Japanese Anime and even though Scarlett Johansson is a spectacular Action Movie Actress, I feel like many others that the starring Role of Major Motoko Kusanagi should be portrayed by an Asian Actress. And there are several to chose from, Lucy Liu for example would be perfect for the role. Just Sayin’

    • Lucy Liu is Chinese, that’s like saying all asians look alike. Kusunagi should be Devon Aoki, or Sophie Oda. I can understand directors wanting to portray their interpretation of the storyline, but the old saying goes: chicken soup HAS to taste like chicken soup, that’s why we eat chicken soup.

  9. Casting this series incorrectly would be a horrible disservice to fans of the series.

  10. Do the right thing – cast an Asian actor in this Asian role.

  11. Tatijana

    Yikes, the last airbender one was pretty bad. I mean, that was a perfect opportunity to use a lot of minorities since they are trying to represent many different peoples.

    Also the whole thing is pretty ridic. Just like most people would be confused if other races played Jewish people in a Holocaust movie, having white people play characters living in Asia is just as weird and confusing.

    • What? Non-Jews play Jews in Holocaust movies all the time, like Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz in Schindler’s List, Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, Cate Blanchett in The Good German, Daniel Craig and Jamie Bell in Defiance, and the list goes on.

      • Tatijana

        I didn’t say non Jews. I said a different race. The average person probably couldn’t tell one white ethnicity from another, but may be confused if they were seeing Asian people playing Jewish people.

  12. Another example (although non-Anime) would be 21. It is a movie based on true event, where the main casts were Asians, but they turned them into Caucasians, with Asian sidekicks. Of course, this stirred quite a bit of controversy.

    Interestingly, Jim Sturgess, who played the main character(who was Asian in real life), played Asian character in Cloud Atlas, in which he appeared with make up to appear as Asian. This caused “Yellow Face” controversy as well.

  13. This was taken from a note I left and I think you did a fantastic job in analyzing this topic. I definitely believe diversity is key because you are right, “Hollywood is an industry that reaches out to countries all over the world.” Great job. This surely needs to be noticed.

  14. Alisha Allan

    I loved Ghost in the Shell. One of my fav manga and the movie was so haunting. I was really excited, I still am by the way, to know that it was going to go live. But even though I love Scarlette Johanson, even though she is a very good actress, the lead role, the one I loved so much, is not a white woman. Please, keep it as it should be.

  15. There are several highly talented asian actors and actresses known to NA audiences.

  16. Yulanda Pack

    If only they knew: having a racially diverse cast would mean more publicity in those respective countries..

  17. Hollywood has tried to make anime adaptations in the past using white actors to replace asian characters and it never ends well. If the original audience of a piece of work and its characters are not respected fans will not go to theatre’s to even watch it.

  18. YsabelGo

    I think casting is extremely important, and when the person does not resemble the character at all, it disinterests me to watch the film. Even the live adaptation of Ore Monegatari disinterests me, because the Japanese didn’t get the hair colours right for the characters! Ugh… orz

  19. The end word is that Hollywood needs more diversity. Hollywood is what much of the world knows about the US. Many of my international friends and acquaintances are under the impression that the US is made up entirely of caucasian people.
    The Japanese term for “American” refers to a white caucasian. Race is already such a hot topic in the states that we forget that our media projects is incredibly influential abroad as well.

  20. krystalleger

    Very good points.

  21. I am a huge fan of manga adaptions and watch a considerable amount of JDrama and KDrama and Taiwanese drama which often adapt the same mangas. They all change the characters’ races to the predominant race of their country i.e. Korean drama adaptions of Japanese manga’s will most often use Korean actors and the same goes for Taiwanese adaptions so I don’t think that’s particularly harmful or intentional. America could be a different story since there is potentially much more diversity here.

    I do find it EXTREMELY problematic when a white actor is used to specifically represent another race and culture (which is not the same as entirely adapting the story to a country and using white actors), such as Rooney Mar as Tiger Lily. Or when Hollywood uses a black (or other minority) actor to portray a villainous character who was not originally of a different race than the protagonists as Zuko in the Avatar movie adaption.

    • Though Hollywood definitely does need more diversity and using Japanese actors to play traditionally Japanese characters in manga adaptions could certainly be a good start.

  22. The industry already has too many closed doors to people of color.

  23. I absolutely agree with this article and was waiting for someone to say something about casting Nat Wolf as Light Yagami. I mean COME ON. He’s as white as white can be and casting asian individuals in solely racial stereotypical roles is getting ridiculous.

  24. I have to agree with this article, and embarrassingly admit that I hadn’t really noticed before…

  25. DustinKop

    I am still waiting for my Toby McGuire Robotech movie dog goneit!!

  26. Emily Deibler

    Ugh, whitewashing is awful and nonsensical. The Last Airbender was a travesty. Good post.

  27. I really enjoyed the content of this article because I thought I was the only one angered by the flood of upcoming Hollywood remakes of popular animes. I understand that the main reasoning for casting white leading characters is because they’re are the more commercial option. Yet, it annoys me that something like Death Note’s Japanese setting is quite integral to the narrative will be completely switched. Ugh, I just feel like these are going to flop…

  28. I’ve been saying this for years. But hey, people continue to buy, read and fawn over these characters even after the whitewashing has happened. We need to make noise about it!

  29. Kevin Mohammed

    I know that this has been a huge topic, especially since they announced casting for the Ghost in Shell film.

  30. Jill

    This reminds me of my confusion in the casting of Kristen Kreuk in The legends of Chun Li. After research, I found out that she is indeed half Chinese, but her Dutch background pretty much toned down her Asian features to mute. Also, Dragonball Evolution was dominantly cast white, which was again very confusing.

  31. I agree on this, Whitewashing Characters and Actors is quite a small problem. If should be necessary, they should place Asian actors

  32. I always felt that it came from a business perspective; cast bigger names to get more people into the theaters, or cast people that many people can identify with. But that can’t be used as an excuse anymore. With the increasing amount of diversity and awareness of diversity and multiculturalism, it shouldn’t even remotely be a problem to cast Asian actors for Asian roles. There is no question talent-wise, so it’s hard to understand why Hollywood still keeps whitewashing these stories. If it’s a good story with good character development, people will watch it and enjoy it and there will be profit. So make the story as authentic and genuine as possible.

  33. I agree with this article. I feel as though other races are not being represented respectively in media and by whitewashing characters, the films will not be as good.

  34. I’m intrigued as to how the Death Note adaptation will portray the shinigami.

  35. This about sums up my thoughts on Scarlett Johansson’s role as the Major

  36. I laugh when American filmmakers steal Asian movies and try to make it White. Ju-On became the Grudge, Ringu became the Ring, The Last Airbender, Infernal Affairs became the Departed, OldBoy, 47 Ronin, the Last Samurai, Yojimbo became A fist full of dollars, and lastly, The Magnificent Seven.

  37. ees

    Great article!

    I’m sure that many agree wholeheartedly that the whitewashing of Asian characters has been outrageous over the years. Additionally, I feel that (with Ghost in the Shell in particular) the white washing touches on even deeper issues. First of all cultural, in the sense that the concept of “the cyborg” in Western culture is vastly different from that of the Japanese- oftentimes one finds (in anime especially) that the “cyborg” character is an ally, whereas in Western cinema we have an obvious distrust of the cyborg. On top of that, Scarlett Johansson’s sexualization (through no fault of her own, I should mention) seems likely to dominate the narrative as opposed to what made the original Ghost in the Shell so interesting- that of exploring the sexuality (or lack there of) of a post-human subject.

    In addition to all of this, Johansson remarked that Motoko was “identity-less”, which shows a surprising lack of understanding for the character she is supposed to be portraying. On top of that, the directors I have read also claimed that the original was “too philosophical”, and so they chose to leave out a lot of the defining themes that made the original film so compelling.

  38. Ezra Chapman

    While I agree these adaptions need more representation, filling the movies with Japanese actors and actresses would sort of defeat the point of remaking them in a western country. A bigger problem seems to be the dumbing down and overall Westernisation of the plot itself, as they ended up doing with Death Note by turning it into another generic American horror movie.

  39. Nicholas Bennett

    I’m sure it’s been said, but Hollywood film is a bloodthristy business only interested in money. They hire famous faces because it draws money, and when they don’t have someone famous for a role, they cast someone they think will be the next star. Unfortunately, all of those faces are usually white because that’s how American society views success and beauty, through a white lens. I worked in Hollywood for a bit and it’s why I left.

  40. Maybe if the new live action avatar series is a success it will open more doors for minority centered movies. Fingers and toes crossed.

  41. Ja-Numri

    Wonderful article! I personally agree as a representative of the Asian community. We would like to see more of our community in movies that originated in Asia. Sometimes it saddens us to see roles taken by people who barley know of the sort. I feel casting should be more appropriate. Especially since we grew up with these shows and movies. But don’t get us wrong we love people appreciating our cultures! Love the ideas of bringing our shows to life! But I feel it just needs to be done right or it just ruins the vibe.

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